responding to Tim McGrew

Tim’s talk on Tuesday night was my first exposure to his work and thought. I found his presentation well reasoned, clear, and helpful to me in a number of ways. That said, I think there is more going on when a person comes to faith than “rational process” as described in this lecture. While a person’s subjective experience of coming to faith is entirely rational, the preposition “by” makes a strong causal claim that should be examined. This distinction should be important to us as Christians because of the key distinctions made in the “not by” and “but by” statements in the New Testament. For example, when Paul says “not by works of righteousness…” he is not saying that these works of righteousness that God has appointed are not of central importance to our experience of life as believers in Christ. In fact, our own subjective experience of growth in our faith is inseparably linked to our works of righteousness which flow out of our union with Christ, the Logos. So then, there is an important distinction being made in Christian thought between factors that define our subjective experience and what actually brought it about.

In defending himself against the charge that he was doing exorcisms by demonic power, Jesus countered that before it is possible for the home invader to steal someone’s property, he must first bind the strong man, then he can raid his house. In the immediate context, that refers to a person who is under demonic oppression, but really it applies to the whole world. Prior to coming to faith, we belong to that kingdom and its king does not let us go willingly. This is not in opposition to anything that Tim said in his talk, in fact, but I think some real work is needed to reconcile this view of spiritual home invasion with the reflective and continuous process of opinions changing in response to evidence.

The conversion of Paul looms large in Christian thought, so it is worth considering whether that could be described as a rational process. Certainly yes, as Paul’s first words were, looking up from the dirt, “Who are you, Lord?” The rational process continues over the following weeks, and throughout his life, as he works out the meaning of that experience. But by his own words, he was “taken hold of by Christ”, rather than the other way around. None of this contradicts anything that Tim said. I think it is rather my own impression that creeps in as I listened to Tim’s talk and envisioned coming to Christ by a rational process as something that happens by diligent pursuit of the best evidence, maybe helped by coffee and a few good books. Not many people come to Christ the way Paul did, but I guess than not many come by this coffee-and-books caricature either!

Someone I read recently described her coming to Christ as a “train wreck”. Her process was a rational one too. I am not arguing against anything anyone was saying at the conference, but maybe trying to point out what was left unsaid, probably obvious to everyone except me. That is, that the rational process that I am aware of as I come to Christ is just the tip of the iceberg; it can no more explain the full scope of what is going on when I turn from darkness to light than the motion of my finger can explain why the light comes on in my office when I flip the switch. Maybe this is part of what the questioner had in mind with the quote from Pascal, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.”

Leave a Reply